All sci-fi lovers respectfully remember the name of H. G. Wells, but today we find him not as a writer but as the protagonist of this entertaining 1979 movie, Time After Time.
The story begins in 1893, in the heart of London, where the brilliant Wells shows an extraordinary device he recently invented to his close group of best friends, a cabin that can harness light energy to travel through time.
Of course, his friends are skeptical about it, yet the Scotland Yard police arrive and demand to search everyone present.
Indeed, not far away, the terrible Jack the Ripper has struck again, killing a prostitute and leaving some traces that lead to Wells’ house.
To their surprise, they discover that respected doctor Leslie John Stevenson is missing, finding a glove stained with the blood of his latest victim in his bag.
Unaware of Wells, Stevenson has figured out how to operate the device, fleeing into the future to escape the police.
Unable to tell the truth out of fear of being taken for a fool, Wells has no choice except to enter the time machine and travel to 1979, ironically arriving in the wing of a museum devoted entirely to his writing achievements.
Completely lost in a world totally different from anything he knew, he first tries to exchange some of his pounds for dollars to get food and a place to sleep.
In doing so, with the help of the pretty and cheerful bank clerk Amy Robbins, he discovers Stevenson also came up with the same idea and has again begun his terrible prostitute killings.
While falling in love with young Amy, however, Wells does not realize he is putting her in danger as a top target for the more dreadful than ever Jack the Ripper.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
In 1979, Time After Time was the movie opening the behind-the-camera career of Nicholas Meyer, future director of the celebrated second episode of the Star Trek saga, The Wrath of Khan.
To some extent, little-overlooked movies like this embody everything I love and why I consider many flicks from that period to be more entertaining and longer-lasting in cinematic history.
Despite the rudimentary special effects, certainly far from modern computer graphics, the plot intensity and the main characters’ appeal really draw and grab your attention.
Without needing too much introduction, you become caught up in their fates, wholly absorbed in their lives, which Meyer, with skillful craftsmanship, intertwines between adventure, comedy, and naive but intense passion.
The dark omen that permeates the plot lies in the figure of Jack the Ripper, hauntingly and fascinatingly portrayed as one of the first and most notorious serial killers in history, whose sinister fate seems to foreshadow the horrors to come in the twentieth century.
A century that would be marked by decades of death and conflict, including two devastating world wars, then followed by an era of fear and a nuclear standoff between the US and the Soviet Union.
Amidst all this, the figure of H. G. Wells emerges, disillusioned and lost in the future, as a naive optimist who hoped for a moral evolution of humanity and not just a technological one.
On the other hand, the Stevenson/Jack character seems to be perfectly at home in this gloomy context, fully diving into the violence of a particular strand of 1980s American culture and politics.
Here, then, is the strength of science fiction: a narrative that has the power to be socially relevant while maintaining a high level of entertainment without ever degenerating into a pointless and boring political monologue.
It is difficult to be simply amazing
Malcolm McDowell, famous for his psycho roles since A Clockwork Orange (or the funny future tyrant in Tank Girl), surprises and stands out brilliantly as an optimistic and positive hero in this new guise.
His character, with that streak of conceit typical of geniuses like H.G. Wells, is full of confidence toward a bright future for all humankind. He becomes even funnier and more awkward when confronting the future, as when, for example, in a memorable scene, he sits in a McDonald‘s, mistaking it for an Irish restaurant.
Next to him shines Mary Steenburgen, who plays a radiant and optimistic woman with whom a spontaneous and absolutely believable romance arises, without the need for endless seduction scenes.
I have always admired the range of this actress’ performances, from playing a ruthless lawyer against Tom Hanks in Philadelphia to a sweet teacher in the supernatural and exciting Powder, displaying very flexible acting skills.
Together, McDowell and Steenburgen form a quirky but perfectly balanced pair, committed to pursuing the challenging David Warner, another irreplaceable performer who completely engages in the role of Jack the Ripper.
Presenting us with a personality openly honest in his glacial lucid madness, he never tries to explain or justify his sadistic delight in blood and murder, and this is a characteristic of the best cinematic villains: they delineate character through actions rather than speeches.
Unfortunately, despite the appreciation of cinephiles and time travel enthusiasts, Time After Time is a 1979 movie that received far less attention than it deserved.